Culture: Food with Nicola Miller - Playing with traditions
Sardinia and its hospitable people is a favourite of food writer Nicola Miller. Here she puts her own twist on a soup she first enjoyed in a small restaurant in front of the harbour at Alghero
It is said that until the dawn of the 20th century, the residents of Sardinia faced inland, their attention focused on defending its mountainous, rugged interiors from the people they referred to as furat chi beit dae su mare – ‘he who comes from the sea comes to rob’. Sardinians weren’t known as sailors, indeed their coastal towns and villages were originally populated by people arrived from other places: the locals chose to leave them to their invaders and settle inland.
Sardinians have something of the Celt about them: they are storytellers and singers with a love of myths and legends. Their hospitality and generosity are legendary and they are said to be some of the most prolific blood donors in Italy. The Islanders had their own calendar and they marched to their own drumbeat. Many of the island’s most celebrated rituals have their roots in pre-history, and the Sardinian flag has four moors on it but nobody is totally sure what this means.
The countryside is dotted with ancient buildings called nuraghe but again, nobody can be absolutely certain as to their purpose. Their pasta is called maloreddus, ‘little calves’, but looks nothing like a baby cow and despite being an island rich in marine life, fish wasn’t a traditional part of the diet until the Sardinians started to adapt the seafood and fish recipes of their invaders. By nature, they are not an ostentatious people but their history is an incredibly rich and storied one. It is also contradictory and mysterious.
Like all Italians, Sardinians are proud of their traditions and don’t take too kindly to people like me fiddling with their recipes and calling them ‘traditional’, so I am not going to make any claims of authenticity for this recipe which took its inspiration from a Sardinian chickpea and clam soup, then deviated wildly. It’s always easier to play with traditions that are not your own, isn’t it? I didn’t eat this exact meal on one of my trips to the island (Sardinia is my favourite part of Italy), but I do have a memory of something like it, served in a small restaurant in front of the harbour at Alghero, a town in the north-west whose fortified walls tell of its past occupation by Catalans.
Chickpeas help to thicken the broth and they originated in the Middle East and went on to be cultivated in the Mediterranean area, arriving with the Moors. They are an ingredient of Cucina Povera, an easily grown food which survives in challenging growing conditions and keeps well, allowing families to be fed during the hunger gap where dairy animals go dry and fields lie fallow. Once upon a time, much of the countryside around Alghero was malarial so it’s not hard to imagine how tough life must have been.
The original recipe blends the potato into a mush before cooking them in the broth as a thickener but I have left most of the chunks intact because I prefer it this way. My soup has cockles too, a shellfish local to East Anglia where we produce some of the best – it’d be criminal to not take advantage of this regional abundance – while the inclusion of the more traditional clam (in Sardinia, this soup would use the small variety called Arselle but I can’t find them easily here) shows the evolution of the island cuisine from its pig, goat and beef-dominated past, to a foodways which firmly embraces its maritime geography. The Swiss chard is grown regionally, a vegetable that does well in our wintry, claggy soil and relatively inexpensive because of this and adds an earthy note to a broth bright with tomatoes and lemon. When paying tribute to Italian food, it is absolutely appropriate to use what is seasonal and local to us.
A clam, chickpea and cockle soup (influenced by Sardinia)
Serves four, with bread
500g potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes (I use Maris Piper)
1 small red chili (I used peperoncino but any medium-heat red chili will suffice)
One leek, rinsed and finely sliced
4 cloves garlic (I used smoked garlic but unsmoked is fine, too)
500g canned chickpeas, rinsed and drained
750ml fish stock (it’s ok to use bought stock)
Olive oil for frying
400g canned plum tomatoes
4 large leaves rainbow chard, finely sliced, stalks included
Large sprig of rosemary, left intact
Fistful of chopped flatleaf parsley
Finely-grated zest of one lemon
Salt and pepper
Place a large casserole dish or saucepan over a low heat and pour in olive oil. Add the sliced garlic, chili, potato, and leek and cook until the leek has softened and collapsed. This will take at least ten minutes. Add the rinsed chickpeas, pour in the stock and the canned tomatoes and bring to the boil, then turn down the heat to a simmer. Finely shred the rainbow chard leaves and cut the stalks into thin slices then add to the soup. Continue simmering for twenty minutes. Taste, and add salt if necessary.
Rinse the clams well and check for any broken shells or clams that don’t close when tapped – these are dead and should not be eaten. Add to the pot along with the cockles, the sprig of rosemary and lemon zest. Simmer over a low heat for a couple of minutes until all the clams have opened.
Take the soup off the heat, remove the rosemary, cover, and leave to sit for a minute then taste for seasoning, adjusting if necessary. Using a fork, roughly mash some of the potato and chickpea to thicken the soup, stir in, then garnish with the chopped parsley before serving.
Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale